A Night at the (Chinese) Opera
Watching a show of classical Chinese opera inside one of Taiwan's finest stage-performance venues, Taipei Eye, can even make you forget all about a major storm that is raging outside.
By Richard Saunders
It's Mid-Autumn Festival, one of the three biggest traditional Chinese holidays. It's a time for the family to get together, enjoy a big dinner (perhaps an outdoor barbecue), and enjoy the beauty of the full moon, which is said to be at its most perfect on this night. Yet there's no barbecuing tonight, and no moon to be seen either. Taipei is in the grip of a storm, the heavens have opened, and all hopes of seeing the night sky, let alone the beautiful white sphere after which the day is named, are dashed. None of this matters a jot, however, as I sit, dry, warm, and comfortable, oblivious to the howling wind and driving rain pounding the city streets outside, watching the spectacle unfold on the stage before me. I'm spending an evening at Taipei Eye, one of the best places in Taiwan to see authentic Chinese performing arts, and a spectacularly colorful and rousing way to spend a wet — or dry — evening any weekend of the year.
Taipei Eye is one of the best places in Taipei to experience Chinese performing arts at their exotic, colorful best
Situated near the old center of Taipei, on the pleasant, tree-lined boulevard that is Zhongshan North Road, it's easy to walk straight past the discreet marble building housing Taipei Eye. Opened only in 2002, Taipei Eye traces its origins back to the early 20th Century, when a businessman named Koo Xian-rong opened Taiwan Novel Hall as a venue for performances of traditional Chinese arts in a city that had by then largely adopted the ideas and fashions of the occupying Japanese colonial government.
When Taiwan Novel Hall was inadvertently destroyed by allied bombs during a Second World War air raid, Taipei was left without a formal venue dedicated to Chinese opera and other local performing arts for over four decades. Then, in 1989, Koo's son established the Koo Foundation, with the objective of reviving performances of Chinese opera in Taipei. The result was the formation of a small company specializing in this ancient art form, and the construction of a new Novel Hall (now in the shadow of Taipei 101, the hall opened in 1997) and then Taipei Eye (which opened its doors for the first time five years later).
These two venues are the best places in Taipei to experience Chinese performing arts at their exotic, colorful best, and seeing at least one performance is a "must" during any visit to Taiwan's capital. Taipei Eye is especially convenient for visitors with tight schedules, offering regular performances as it does every Friday and Saturday evening at 8 pm.
Walking off the busy street into the spacious marble lobby of Taipei Eye, a short elevator ride carries me up to the auditorium, three floors up. As the elevator doors open, a riot of color quite different from the cool, professional modernism of the marble foyer downstairs greets me and my fellow visitors. The walls are hung with traditional red-paper cuttings, photos of Chinese-opera performers in all their finery, a huge lucky dragon head, and colorful costumes, while in a corner stands a colorful, elaborately carved Chinese puppet theater, complete with an array of fine Taiwanese budaixi puppets.
The first half of the show presents a skillful and clever blend of Taiwanese aboriginal costumes and arts with several decidedly Chinese forms
It's still half an hour until the performance starts and I'm one of the first to arrive, but while waiting, there's plenty to examine and enjoy. Presently, a young lady elegantly dressed in a pink-satin dress sits down in a corner of the foyer and begins strumming a pipa (a Chinese lute) while a quick peep around a corner reveals a makeup artist named Mr. Liu applying elaborate swirls of makeup to the face of one of tonight's performers. Mr. Liu, like most of the other performers at Taipei Eye, learnt his ancient craft at National Taiwan Junior College of Performing Arts. Entering the school at the age of eleven — "I was attracted by the colorful clothes and makeup whenever I saw a Beijing opera performance on TV," he explains — makeup was just one of many disciplines Liu learnt during an eight-year-long course of study at the institution. (Note: There are many types of traditional opera, but it is the Beijing form that is generally understood to be "Chinese" opera.) Although students there soon get to specialize in one of the main character roles of Chinese opera (such as scholar, young lady, or clown), there's a wide range of other skills to learn, from acrobatics to (of course) singing. As we stand in the corridor, Liu's enthusiasm is palpable. It seems he's forgotten he's
talking to a Westerner with severely limited Chinese skills as he explains his art, illustrating his comments with smooth, precise movements of body, head, and eyes that — it's clear even to an outsider such as myself — took long years of study.
As eight o'clock draws close, streams of people begin pouring out of the elevators, across the foyer, and into the smart new auditorium. Within a couple of minutes, everyone is seated, the lights dim, and the show begins.
Taipei Eye is best-known for the quality of its Beijing opera, yet local Taiwanese culture isn't forgotten here. Tonight the first half of the 90-minute show (which changes every few months) presents a skillful and clever blend of Taiwanese aboriginal costumes and arts (some fine singing and dancing) with several decidedly Chinese art forms, including a group of young ladies doing some amazingly nifty things with that favorite Chinese children's toy, the diabolo (sometimes called a "Chinese yoyo"), and a nail-biting display of truly spectacular Chinese acrobatics, climaxing with a brave and breathtakingly skillful young "aboriginal warrior" perched fifteen extremely precarious meters above the stage, atop seven stacked chairs, the lowest of which itself is balancing on four ordinary champagne bottles.
After this eye-opening and highly suspensful display of youthful vigor (the troupe is notable for both the youthfulness and dedication of its performers: most members are still under 30), the mid-show break provides a good opportunity to calm down and buy a couple of souvenirs from the small gift shop in the foyer. Unusually, however, I find the show isn't restricted to the auditorium. In a nice touch, the already made-up performers about to take the stage in the second half of the program emerge into the bustling foyer in all their finery, and chatting audience members are stopped in their tracks with an impromptu performance of Beijing-opera song and dance, three accompanying musicians sitting in a corner. The show-within-the-show over, several other performers emerge from backstage for a quick photo-op with members of the audience. After this unusually enjoyable mid-performance break, an excited audience, primed for the good things to come by this unexpected sampling of the young Beijing-opera troupe's
exceptional skill and enthusiasm for their art, quickly file back into the auditorium. The lights dim once more, and the second (Beijing opera-focused) half of the performance begins.
After five minutes of sumptuous costumes, breathtaking acrobatics and, of course, singing, the audience is hooked
In all the finest shows the best is saved until last, and while it strikes me as unlikely at this point that the folks at Taipei Eye can deliver anything more memorable than the vivid and original theatricality of part one, after five minutes of sumptuous costumes, breathtaking acrobatics and, of course, singing, the audience is hooked. Presented this Mid-Autumn Festival is a scene from the Chinese classic Journey to the West, a story intimately familiar to the Chinese members of the audience, with English and Japanese captions flashing on screens at the side of the stage to ensure those less familiar with the story know exactly what's happening as the events unfold. Ultimately, however, the story itself inevitably takes second place to the magnificent costumes being paraded across the stage, the sometimes ear-splitting but always enjoyably exotic singing (the performers sing live, to a pre-recorded instrumental ensemble), and the series of astonishing set pieces designed to display the skill, poise, and extraordinary acrobatic abilities of the performers.
The final curtain goes down almost too soon, but as the audience leaves the auditorium, passing a pair of ladies elegently attired in qipao (traditional Chinese dress) handing out mooncakes, Taipei Eye has one last delightful surprise. The performers, surely still out of breath after all those rolls and tumbles, stand in line on either side, still in costume, wishing visitors a good night as they file out to the elevators, while the leading performers stand to one side ready for further posing for photos
Back outside the rain continues to fall in sheets, whipped up by a squally wind that makes using an umbrella well-nigh impossible, but even the weather can't spoil my spirits, for I feel elated by the display of youthful talent, dedication, and exuberence offered by the performers at Taipei Eye. There'll be no waiting until the next big festival to enjoy uniquely Chinese entertainment of this caliber. I'll soon be back for more!
Taiwan Cement Hall
ADD: 113 Zhongshan North Road,
Sec. 2, Taipei City
(Nearest MRT Station: Shuanglian)
SHOWS: Every Fri. & Sat. at 8 pm